“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Fourth – “A Turning”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the First – “The Cup and the Lip”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Second – “Birds of a Feather”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Third – “A Long Lane”

London is Dickens’ usual setting – so much so, indeed, that it is hard for many of us to think of the city at all without some Dickensian images coming to mind. Our Mutual Friend had, in the third part, briefly wandered outside London in the scenes surrounding the death of Betty Higden: at the start of the fourth and final part of the novel, we find ourselves out there again – on the Thames to the west of the city, somewhere between London and Oxford. This river flows through the novel, and is among its most potent images: the novel had started on the river, in the midst of the murky darkness of the city, when a corpse had been fished out: now, we are in more pastoral settings, away from the filth of the metropolis.

But the filth of the city has not gone away: we meet again Rogue Riderhood, who is now keeper of the lock; and we meet again Bradley Headstone, obsessively stalking Eugene Wrayburn. Riderhood links together the three characters Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene Wrayburn, and, now, Bradley Headstone: he is not sure exactly how they are related, but he is picking out the links. And if Mortimer Lightwood had been a guvnor, and Eugene Wrayburn ’tother guvnor, then Bradley Headstone becomes, with delicious indifference to the laws of grammar ’Totherest guvnor. In Dickens’ eccentric world, that henceforth becomes Bradley’s name: ’Totherest.

The tension is high. This strand of the novel involving the love triangle of Bradley Headstone, Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam is approaching its climax. Possibly, it has developed beyond Dickens’ own expectations: it has about it a passionate intensity that goes way beyond anything Dickens had attempted before. Compared to Bradley Headstone’s murderous passions, previous forays into the psychology of violence – whether with Bill Sikes or Jonas Chuzzlewit – seem merely stagy, written for immediate effect rather than with any great insight into the vicious and impassioned mind. But there’s nothing stagy here. And, given the geniality and the warmth that is apparent in so much of the rest of the novel – which recall Dickens’ earlier work rather than his later, darker novels – one wonders whether Dickens had found himself in this particular strand going into areas that he himself had not anticipated. But be that as it may, once in this area, Dickens doesn’t shirk its implications. Closely observed by Rogue Riderhood, Bradley Headstone, already dangerously near the edge of sanity, seems mentally to tear himself apart. The scene where the rush of blood to Headstone’s head causes his blood to gush through his nose is terrifying: I do not know how accurate this is in medical terms, but, as with Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, Dickens’ fictional world is one where metaphor can easily become a physical reality.

There are a few other strands to be resolved as well, of course. The Lammles, we had learnt towards the end of the third part, are now all washed up: Dickens brings Giorgiana Podsnap back into the frame here, and tries to enlist some sympathy on behalf of this pathetically dominated girl, but she had been presented earlier in the novel in such grotesque terms that it is difficult to take her seriously now as a real person. Or, at least, if the reader is to take her seriously, Dickens needed to give himself a bit more time and space than he could spare for so incidental a character. There’s also Mr Riah, whose moral scruples force him to leave Fledgeby’s employment (shortly before he receives an unceremonious letter from his employer telling him he is sacked anyway), and whose relationship with Jenny Wren is re-established as previous misunderstandings are cleared up. Fledgeby himself gets his come-uppance as Lammle, as his final act in the novel, gives the bounder a damn good thrashing. Modern sensibilities may recoil at such a resolution: physical violence, we feel nowadays, is always to be deplored; but Dickens wrote in, we may say, an age with more “robust” values, and was an admirer of Fielding to boot: he saw nothing untoward in a snivelling cad such as Fledgeby getting his come-uppance in such a manner. This leaves two other major strands: there’s Silas Wegg’s continuing attempts to blackmail Boffin, and this continues agreeably in Dickens’ best comic manner till its predictable, though nonetheless funny, resolution. And, finally, there is the fairy tale thread – the Prince in Disguise testing his Beloved.

And here, Dickens has a problem: having set this as one of the two major plot strands in the novel (the other being the Headstone-Hexam-Wrayburn triangle), he cannot drop it with a quarter of the novel still to go – he has to keep it going to the end; and yet, the strand has already been resolved. Once Bella decides, towards the end of the third part, that she would rather forfeit her fortune than be party to the injustice meted out to John Rokesmith, this particular story is effectively finished: she has triumphantly passed her test, and all that remains is to disclose the identity of the Prince in Disguise so the two can live happily ever after. But – rather surprisingly, given the extraordinarily intricate planning in the earlier Bleak House – Dickens appears to have miscalculated here: the resolution of this story had come too early, and Dickens has to do what he can to stretch this strand through to the end, even though there is no further material to keep it going. As a consequence, the testing of Bella continues quite gratuitously, stretching in the process both probability and psychological coherence. Indeed, it becomes distasteful, as the continuing “testing” of Bella even when she has proved herself can only be seen as tantamount to deliberate cruelty; and, even in the context of a fairy story, her cheerful acceptance of it all when all is revealed makes no sense at all.

Dickens, especially in his earlier work, enjoyed describing good people being happy together: such material is usually eschewed by writers (and not just modern writers) for obvious reasons – the most obvious of which is that it lacks dramatic tension. But there was an aspect of Dickens that made him return to this sort of thing, and it is perhaps surprising that after the darker and more pessimistic views of humanity expressed in Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, he should return again to this. But he does, and does so with a vengeance; and it becomes hard to escape the impression given here of tweeness, and of a forced jollity.

But if, as I suspect, Dickens had some inner need to write in this mode – almost as if he needed to convince himself that virtue can triumph, even in a world so wicked as this – the other principal strand shows no sign whatever of compromise. Eugene Wrayburn has tracked down Lizzie Hexam, but is still without much idea of his own intentions; and Lizzie, very understandably, remains apprehensive. If the depiction of the violent passions of Bradley Headstone is a new departure of Dickens – and it is a mark of his artistic restlessness that even in so late a stage in his artistic career he was willing to take the risk of making such departures – then the depiction of Eugene Wrayburn is no less so. Convention – which Dickens has often been happy to accept at face value – would have demanded that Eugene be an innately good and decent man. But while Eugene certainly has in himself elements both of goodness and of decency, he is no spotless hero. On his first meeting with Bradley Headstone, Eugene had made full use of the one weapon he had in his possession – the superiority of his social rank over Headstone’s. Headstone was enraged, and it is not hard to see why: not only is this man his rival in love, this man also insults him gratuitously purely because, by an accident of birth, he happens to occupy a superior social position. (Indeed, his hatred of Eugene, which has its roots in their first meeting, may well have been as potent a force as his desire for Lizzie in driving him to homicidal madness). And later, when Eugene meets Mr Riah, he does not hesitate to make insulting remarks regarding Mr Riah’s Jewishness. It is a distasteful scene, but perfectly in character.

Eugene lacks any sense of purpose – either in personal or in professional matters; and yet, he feels superior to others, on account of his social class, and also on account of his race. He is obviously attracted to Lizzie, but does not know what to do, how to act, or what to say. Even his close friend, Mortimer Lightwood, worries about what he might do. In such cases, after all, even the possibility of rape could not be ruled out: as readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles will know, a man of higher social standing would be unlikely to be called to account for what would have been regarded merely as a “seduction” of a working class girl. Under the circumstances, Eugene’s winning of Lizzie is no mere conventional love story of spotless hero and spotless heroine triumphing over the odds: for, among the hurdles Eugene has to overcome, the most significant is his own mind. Like Bella earlier in the novel, Eugene needs to be educated; and since his story is not a fairy story, as Bella’s is, his education is harsh and painful. It almost costs him his life.

The development of Eugene’s consciousness is among Dickens’ triumphs. Eugene has long been sexually attracted to Lizzie, to the point even of obsession, but he can only develop a healthy relationship with her once he learns to respect her. Each touch in the telling of this story is a touch of a master, and refutes all those allegations of lack of depth or of sentimentality that the latter part of the John Harmon-Bella Wilfer story appears to confirm. After Headstone’s attack leaves Eugene almost dead, it is Lizzie who rescues him, and tends to him. And her heroism is answered by his: he finally decides what is important in his life, and, defying all social conventions, marries her. It is a heroic decision, as he knows full well that this will mean exclusion from the only society that he is acquainted with. But he makes his decision with a fierce pride and defiance. He briefly mentions to his friend Mortimer the possibility of escaping away from society to the colonies, and, when Mortimer suggests that this may be the right thing to do, Eugene reacts passionately:

‘No,’ said Eugene, emphatically. ‘Not right. Wrong!’

He said it with such a lively–almost angry–flash, that Mortimer showed himself greatly surprised. ‘You think this thumped head of mine is excited?’ Eugene went on, with a high look; ‘not so, believe me. I can say to you of the healthful music of my pulse what Hamlet said of his. My blood is up, but wholesomely up, when I think of it. Tell me! Shall I turn coward to Lizzie, and sneak away with her, as if I were ashamed of her! Where would your friend’s part in this world be, Mortimer, if she had turned coward to him, and on immeasurably better occasion?’

Mortimer is indeed surprised: this is not the Eugene he had known – the man with no purpose in life, and who hid his lack of energy and direction under an affected show of languid boredom and indifference; and neither is the Eugene we had known earlier in the novel – the man who had rubbed in his unearned sense of superiority over those to whom he had no right to feel superior. Eugene’s blood is up, as he says: we had never seen that before. But now, it is “wholesomely up”: he has grown in moral stature.

The novel ends with a final visit to that demented chorus at the Veneerings, and they are enjoying a good old gossip. That Eugene Wrayburn, who used sometimes to frequent that table, has gone and married a boatwoman of some kind, and one by one, they take turns to ridicule the match, and to express their disgust. Mr Podsnap is so offended and disgusted at this – his gorge rises to such an extent – that he declines to hear anything further about it, and sweeps it away with a movement of his arm. Only one voice in the company remains unheard – that of Mr Twemlow. Throughout the conversation, he has been feeling increasingly uneasy, and, finally, when asked to speak, he overcomes his usual gentlemanly reticence (as with all passages depicting the scenes of society at the Veneerings’ table, this is written in the present tense):

Twemlow has the air of being ill at ease, as he takes his hand from his forehead and replies.

‘I am disposed to think,’ says he, ‘that this is a question of the feelings of a gentleman.’

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

And on this splendid note, we come to the end of Dickens’ last completed novel. For all the pessimism and darkness that permeate his late works, he ends with the belief that the degree of being a “gentleman” can be “attained by any man”; and that, with human kindness and decency, those barriers that separate us humans one from another may indeed be overcome. Dickens did not, of course, know that this was to be his last completed novel; but, in retrospect, this does seem to me a fine way to bow out.


Our Mutual Friend is one of those proverbial curate’s eggs (although, frankly, I’m not too sure what a real curate’s egg is): so much that is merely crude or simplistic or sentimental lies side by side with other elements that remind me why it is I love the novels of Dickens – alongside those of Tolstoy – more than, I think, the novels of just about anyone else. Our Mutual Friend is not so intricately planned as Bleak House, nor, perhaps, as deeply felt as Great Expectations: neither does it have quite the epic sweep of Little Dorrit. There is too much here to provide ammunition to the anti-Dickensian, and even make confirmed Dickensians such as myself regret at times his reversion to some of his bad old ways. But which other novelist could have given us this?

14 responses to this post.

  1. I think it’s by far Charlie’s best and most satisfying work. I find far more rambling and sentimentality in Bleak House; if that is more intricately planned, it hides it well. Epic sweeps I can live without, golden dustmen I can’t.


    • Hello Dai, good to see you here. Although I’m afraid I must, respectfully (as ever!) disagree. Except for the bit about the Golden Dustman: I couldn’t do without the Golden Dustman either.

      Reading back on the posts I’ve written on Our Mutual Friend I suppose I have been a bit harsh on it: I do know that there are many Dickensians (William Trevor for one) who rank it as their favourite. But I do think he was trying to write too many different novels at the same time, and that he couldn’t quite get the various strands to counterpoint each other. I also feel that there are too many times when he returns to his bad old ways. But yes, what is good about the novel is very good indeed.

      My own favourite Dickens novels remain Pickwick Papers because it makes me laugh; Great Expectations because it makes me cry; and Bleak House because …well, for far more reasons than I have time or space to go into here.


      • Gosh, we do disagree. To me Pickwick is tedious and utterly unfunny, like something written for BBC3 by an ‘up and coming comedy talent’ who isn’t. I have more or less given up half way. It’s saving grace is that it makes Matt Lucas seem funny by comnparison.

        Whereas the humourous and the serious and all the themes are better presented and counterpointed, as you put it, in OMF than any of the others I’ve read. I actually get the feeling of an exploration of the effects of money and greed on humanity, in all its variations, done brilliantly and deftly. Even though I suspect Charlie and I would have disagreed hugely over the conclusions to be drawn (rather like I disagree strongly with Hume’s conclusions, though I love his way of doing philosophy), I still admire the analysis and the subtle way it’s embedded in the tale(s).

        I must give Great Exps a go sometime. I now have it on my Sony Reader ~ along with far too many others ever to read.

      • Well – I’m sure there are one or two things we may be able to agree on!

  2. Well, I rather suspect my own feelings range somewhere between (or around) those of Dai and Himadri. In truth, as I have said, I enjoyed Our Mutual Friend, but could not class it near those others that Himadri mentions (Bleak House, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit). That is not to say that it may not in some ways, as Himadri has shown, be very satisfying. Like all Dickens novels, from Pickwick on, it does more than it sets out to do, and that obsessive “more” is bound to bring with it delights and wonderments and, of course, failings and stumbles.

    I do suspect that Dickens was trying to move toward realism without losing the delights of caricature and sentimentality (sentimentality, I would say is present in all these elements — even in the Headstone-Riderhood-Eugene sections). For example, the whole of the Veneering business is caricature (not one bit of realism in it that goes beyond anything, realistically, that Dickens had done before), and it is caricature of a very high order (James Gillray could have illustrated those portions magnificently were he not long dead). This is social satire of the highest order, rich in detail, but broad in handling. It is not a satire on money and greed, however. If that is the only theme one sees, then the whole of this rich satire has been reduced to something little more than a shrill Frankfurt School rant on the savage joys of oppression. If one wants the satire on money matters, the Christmas books do that both well (A Christmas Carol) and poorly (The Chimes, etc.). The unfortunate polemical voice that chases Betty Higden out of London has a good thing to say politically, but rather makes that sub plot a little too presumptuous for me. And it is not part of the Podsnappery, which does the whole social satire thing so much better.

    Funny you bring up Hume, Dai. It was Hume, of course, who pushed the late eighteenth cetury toward the sentimental. The nineteenth century, perhaps, overdid that bit, which is, I am afraid, why we no longer have the faith in sentimentality that I truly beleive we need — and need badly. Hume, himself, overstated it — “reason is the slave of passion” indeed. No, if one reads Hume more carefully one finds that he really meant to make sentiment a partner to reason — to put the two on an even footing. We have still not learned that lesson. For example, the speech from Twemlow, which I think Himadri rightfully makes much of, can be read as a crtique of society, but Dickens, I think, meant it to be more than that. He meant it to be, and it is, if one would but listen to it without the cynicism our own age insists upon, a positive statement — not a critique but a belief, an enthusiasm for humanity, and it is the untempered huumanity that lies behind sentimentality that makes sentimentality so very, very important — and why the sentimental in Dickens is what still delights and replenishes me — even in the later more “pessimistic” books, or perhaps especially in these, for it is in sentimentality that Dickens always finds his most effective and affecting transcendence. Dickens failure to effectively maintain and integrate his sentimentality in light of his excursions into psychological realism, the cruelty of fairy tale, and the boldness of satirical caricature is what really derails this book. Oddly enough, I think the satirical caricature, the Veneering episode, in particular, contains his most effective integration of the humanity that lies behind sentimentality — and that is one of the reasons I find it the most satisfying aspect of the book.


    • Hello Mark,

      There really is something very Gillray-like about the chapters about the Veneerings and their circle, isn’t there? My problem with these chapters is not so much their content, but that the material is not capable of development; and the novel, as a form, demands development. Eventually, Dickens settles for presenting them as a sort of twisted chorus to other events. Which, I suppose, works well enough. (Incidentally, there’s a direct reference to these chapters in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: oblonsky, at one points, refers to a dickens character who dismissed anything he didn’t like with a sweep of his arm – he is referring to Podsnap, of course.)

      And yes, the satire is on more than merely greed: it is a satire on certain ways of looking at life – on regarding certain types humans as being, somehow, less than human. Lizzie is somehow inferior because of her class; Mr Riah because of his religion. This failure to see our fellow humans as humans is the target, I think, of Dickens’ satire, and this is why Twemlow’s speech at the end is so important: this is Dickens’ affirmation that, in spite of everything, we may learn (as Eugene Wrayburn learns); or an innate sense of decency may shine through (as Twemlow’s does). This issue of the divisions humans place between themselves, and the extent to which they may be overcome, seems to have been on Dickens’ mind a;most obsessively in many of his later works.

      I take your points regarding “sentimentality”: in a post I had written earlier, I had characterised “sentimentality” – or, rather, what we in the modern world tend to view as sentimentality” – as an unearned evocation of certain emotions and feelings (sorrow, sweetness). It is curious that we are more ready to forgive a cheap laugh than we are to forgive a cheap tear: it is almost as if certain feelings are more sacred than others, and should not be evoked cheaply, or merely for their own sake. I feel that in our modern age, we are so afraid of being “sentimental” (once again, as the term is used nowadays rather than as an adjective relating to “sentiment”) that we turn away from anything that evokes emotions of grief, or of sweetness: modern tastes tend to run towards the glittering, the distant, the cynical, the cold, the acidic – none of which conveys, as you put it, any “enthusiasm for humanity”.

      I agree with you fully when you say:

      …for it is in sentimentality that Dickens always finds his most effective and affecting transcendence. Dickens failure to effectively maintain and integrate his sentimentality in light of his excursions into psychological realism, the cruelty of fairy tale, and the boldness of satirical caricature is what really derails this book.

      But where he can maintain it (and I think he does in the Lizzie-Eugene-Bradley story) the effect, I think, is wonderful. But of course, your definition of “sentimentality” is somewhat different from the way the word is currently used.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  3. A superb essay, as ever, Himadri. I so enjoyed reading it. So much to think about. Reading time is limited at the moment, so I’m still working my way through books started quite some time ago, and am faced with piles of reading waiting attention… but I still intend to re-read Our Mutual Friend sometime this year! I hope you won’t mind if I re-visit these pages and add some comments later on, when I’ve refreshed my experience of the book, and had time to mull everything over.

    Your post has already got lots of responses sparking in my mind, but I think I really need to immerse myself back in ‘Our Mutual Friend’ to navigate my way through them fully!

    One thing for now that sparked in my mind, just a nugget that may be of interest – I seem to remember picking up along the line somewhere, the links between Bradley Headstone’s psychological state, and Dickens’s exploration of the darker side of the mind – specifically the prompts for muderous, criminal acts – in his portrayal of John Jasper in ‘Edwin Drood.’ Dickens seemed to be very interested in following real life crimes, such as the murder at Road Hill House (as outlined in Kate Summerscale’s book ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’) – echoes of which also made it into the pages of ‘Edwin Drood.’ In his interest in this there seems to be lurking a wider concern of the age – the fascination with the Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde nature of the human psyche…


  4. Hi. I enjoyed your essay (I’m writing an MA dissertation on Our Mutual Friend at the moment). I think one of the reasons this novel is so enjoyable is in the ways that it reflects London. One of my lecturers referred to it as ‘a wonderful big bag of stuff’ and in this it reflects the jumble of London at the time: in a constant process of being rebuilt, complicated, unplanned and with its very different parts constantly bumping into each other.I do think it is a ‘flawed’ novel, but in being flawed, it is perfect, too.


    • Hello Bathsheba, and welcome. (That’s a very Hardyesque screen name you have!)

      I love these huge canvases of Dickens, with every square inch of the canvas bursting with life and vitality. Of course, we do not expect perfection in works such as these: what do a few flaws matter in the context? Dickens does have an ability to imagine an entire city into life – although the city is filtered through that extraordinary and eccentric imagination of his.

      All the best for now,


      • I think this is one book where he achieved real subtextual unity. All asoects of the apparently sprawling canvas illuminate in some way the fundamental theme and all strands interconnect beautifully. Also some of his wittiest writing and very littel of his habitual schmaltz. By far my favourite Dickens.

      • I think the “real subtextual unity” is present also in Bleak House and in Little Dorrit. Indeed, along with Our Mutual friend, these novels seem to me three of a kind – a sort of unofficial trilogy, if you like, where various vastly different elements are carefully placed so as to counterpoint each other, and provide an intricate network of symbols and of allusions.

        It also seems to me that there is more schmaltz in Our Mutual Friend than in the other two novels. Not that I particularly mind the schmaltz: in the first place, it is a sort of inescapable part of Dickens’ art, an outpouring, as it were of his natural tendencies – in other words, without the schmaltz, you don’t get the other stuff either. And in the second place, these novels are vast and capacious enough to take a a bit of schmaltz: in more tightly focussed novels, such as those written by Austen, say, or by James, schmaltz would certainly be out of place; but not here.

        And in any case, as I argued in my Puccini post, there are certain types of schmaltz that I find myself not entirely averse to!

      • I agree there’s strong thematic connection in all those, I just feel it’s less broken up and into by ‘other stuff’ in OMF. I was far less aware of the schmaltz there; perhaps it’s a tad less cloying. Depends what you mean by schmaltz, maybe. There are few more impassioned pieces of writing than the death of Joe in BH, but I suppose some might call that schmaltz.

      • Depends what you mean by schmaltz, maybe. There are few more impassioned pieces of writing than the death of Joe in BH, but I suppose some might call that schmaltz.

        That’s a major problem – so much of what we mean by “schmaltz” orr “sentimentality” depends on how we define the terms, and I have not yet come across a definition in objective terms. And neither are they necessarily Bad Things: I was writing recently about my enjoyment of Puccini, whose operas I freely acknowledge to be schmaltzy; and there are many, I know, who find Disney’s Bambi or Pinocchio charming and delightful, not despite but because of their schmaltz.

        I agree with you aboutthe death of Little Jo: it i stremendously impassioned, and I find it very affecting. But I do get the impression that there are readers who are embarrassed by such open display of emotion, and reach for epithets such as “sentimental” or “schmaltzy” as convenient labels to describe their own embarrassment.

        It does seem to me also that when an author aims to depict strong emotions directly, then, if it doesn’t quite come off right, we end up with what appears sentimental or schmaltzy. And since even the finest of writers may not always getthings right, this is a price we need to pay for passages of real passion. We should perhaps be tolerant of this. But of course, there is another type of sentimentality that is a product of teh author either being habitually incompetent, or deliberately and cynically attempting to manufacture emotions to hook the less sophisticated reader. Dickens was guilty of the latter at times, but nowhere near as frequently, I think, as is often supposed.

      • The screen name was chosen rather at random when I incognito-ed my twitter account. Although I do love Hardy too. Thanks for this blog, when I have finished said dissertation, I’ll be back to read some more.

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